Musically, John Lydon is better known for fronting legendary British punks The Sex Pistols than he is for Public Image Ltd. He formed the latter in 1978, in the wake of the Pistols’ implosion and they lasted until 1992. But this doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that PiL released eight studio albums to the Pistols’ one, or that they’ve enjoyed much more critical acclaim - the image of the in-your-face, sneering, obnoxious, outspoken, confrontational Johnny Rotten is the one that has prevailed all these years.
When Public Image Ltd launch their US tour, it isn't just John Lydon's credibility on the line – it's the band's overall future. If PiL are to record a comeback album, Lydon has revealed, it's up to the American gigs to fund it.
"It's sort of like the old days of PiL, when the [Sex] Pistols went kaput," Lydon told Billboard. "We've got no backing – no recording company, no sponsors, nothing like that ... The only way we can make money is the touring, and then we can make a new album."
Not much has changed ... PiL is my heart and soul, always will be.
More recently, Lydon appears to have mellowed, moving more towards the mainstream he previously shunned and enjoying a renewed sense of public recognition through his 2004 appearance on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. Then, of course, there are those ads, which have seen him pop up on televisions, billboards and in magazines everywhere to promote Country Life “butta!”. It’s a move which seems as far removed from ‘Anarchy In The UK’ as he could possibly make. Yet scratch just beneath the surface and a depth of thought and wisdom is uncovered to reveal that, actually, the John Lydon of 2009 is not so detached, either in spirit or attitude, from his notorious alter ego. Whether it’s Country Life or cunt-ry life, he still holds true to the same values and ideals he always did.
He’s in surprisingly good cheer for the hour-plus duration of the interview, most of which seems to stem from his excitement that PiL are back together for the first time in seventeen years. “Erm…it’s not that long, is it?”, he asks. It sounds like he’s genuinely surprised, though it’s a point you think would have come up in other interviews. And he still seems uncertain when the fact’s confirmed to him.
“Noooo…” he utters slowly. “I don’t even view it that way. I’ve not thought of it like that. To me, it’s like I put the microphone down just a couple of weeks ago and now I’m picking it up. I don’t ever feel dates in that way. That’s puzzling to me…well, that’s just occurred to me. That’s quite a nice length of time, isn’t it?” It is pretty good, yeah. He’s silent for a second after this confirmation, and then: “I think we’re overdue for some serious good stuff, straight from the heart honesty. You all must have missed me!”
You’ve obviously been around in other guises - the Sex Pistols reunions, you’ve been on TV - but is PiL your first proper love?
I wouldn’t say anything of the kind! As far as music goes, it’s by far the most important to me. It’s the most genuine, although you could hardly call The Sex Pistols ungenuine, or disingenuine. Far from it. But this means more to me because rather than dealing with subject matters per se, it deals with personality. The human condition and the flaws of being a human. None of us are perfect, although some of us strive. But PiL, the songs, is me dealing with my mistakes in the most correct way I can.
And learning from them too?
I bloody hope so! I’ve left it a bit late to find out I’m wrong!
So what would you say the most important thing you’ve learned from PiL is?
Well, it’s the Public Image Ltd. It’s to keep the ego out of things. It always has been. I mean, I took the name from a book by Muriel Spark called The Public Image and, indeed, it was about the arrogance of a film starlet and the calamities her ego created. A few other things besides, but that lifestyle can lead to terrible strife and turmoil. And I’ve seen very many people go that way because they don’t keep their ego in check. What Public Image Ltd is, is damage control for the masses.
How right do you think you’ve got it in your fifty-something years on the planet?
Fairly alright. I don’t seem to have hurt too many people around me.
What was your main motivation for deciding to tour again?
Well, the money that came through from the ‘butta!’, has turned out to be just about the right amount to try and get myself back out on the road again. Because I’m not working with any sponsorship at all. I’ve no record company support. It’d be a right bugger to motivate them to even get a record out there in the stores. So it’s a pay-as-I-go kind of thing. And so now here’s the money - good, I can do it. I can finance this.
And presumably you wouldn’t do this if you didn’t enjoy it.
No, absolutely. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. It can hardly be for the money, seeing as I’m going to lose so much doing it! (Laughs)
Is there one thing you think everyone’s always known about you but you’ve only just started to work out?
Ugliness. I’ve always said I think I’m a really ugly bloke, but I’ve always secretly thought I’m not. (Laughs)
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This is an excerpt from an article that appears in the December issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores now or subscribe HERE.
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I will miss Malcolm McLaren and so should you
In a statement, Lydon said that he will "miss" the punk mogul, adding that he was "always entertaining".
"For me Malc was always entertaining and I hope you remember that," Lydon said in a statement he signed under his Sex Pistols' name Johnny Rotten. "Above all else he was an entertainer and I will miss him, and so should you."
McLaren was key in forming the band and helped to mastermind many of their most successful publicity stunts, including signing a record contract in front of Buckingham Palace and the band's launch party on a boat travelling down the Thames which ended in arrests, although the band and their manager fell out and Lydon even took McLaren to court in the early '80s.